The Fourth Estate
Christie Romer on Our Inability to Forecast Recessions

Philip Habib and Ariel Sharon: From the Archives

I feel that over the past five years I have had a leg up on most people I run into on what's going on in the Middle East, especially with respect to the Bush misadventure in Iraq. And one person is responsible: my friend John Boykin, who wrote a biography of American diplomat Philip Habib which is also a history of Ariel Sharon's ill-fated invasion of Lebanon in 1982, operation "Peace for Galilee." And knowing something about "Peace for Galilee" has definitely given me a leg up in understanding what's going on in Iraq. History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

Here's what I wrote about John Boykin's book back in 2002:

Philip Habib and Ariel Sharon: Archive Entry From Brad DeLong's Webjournal: My friend John Boykin has just finished a book (John Boykin (2002), Cursed Is the Peacemaker (Belmont, CA: Applegate Press: 0971943206)) about American diplomat Philip Habib, and his attempt to stop the 1982 Beirut Massacre (which in the end did not happen: he succeeded). It is turning out to be a very timely book, for Habib's principal antagonist as he tried to carry out the mission that Reagan had assigned him was then-Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, the prime mover behind Operation "Peace for Galilee," Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon to expel Yasir Arafat's PLO from the country and to try to install a pro-Israeli government in the country. John says (p. xv) that he "neither knew nor cared about Sharon" when he started the book, and "simply followed the most interesting vein of the story wherever it led." In this context it is interesting that the person who comes off worst of all in the book is Alexander Haig, the person who comes off second worst is Ariel Sharon, and the third-worst impression is made by the soldiers of the IDF--the Israel Defense Force.

Alexander Haig, then American Secretary of State, makes the worst impression of all. In the months leading up to Sharon's invasion, Sharon had repeatedly told Haig that the PLO's armed presence in Lebanon was intolerable, that the security of Israel required that it be ended, and that he--Sharon--was going to do the job. Sharon interpreted what Haig told him back as a green light for the invasion--that Haig understood Israel's problems and requirements, and that such an operation would be acceptable to the United States if it was carried out in response to a sufficiently bloody and brutal provocation. Sharon and his Prime Minister Menachem Begin took the attempted assassination of Israel's Ambassador to Great Britain as such a provocation, and launched its invasion.

But Haig had, apparently, not told Ronald Reagan or anyone else in the White House about his conversations with Sharon, or failed to understand how Sharon would interpret them. When the Israeli invasion of Lebanon began, the White House's first reaction was to summon Special Presidential Envoy Philip Habib to meet with Reagan, and to send him off to the Middle East to stop the war--to find an acceptable political solution. But Alexander Haig (and Ariel Sharon) had a very different view of what Habib's mission was. As John Boykin (pp. 60-61) writes, Habib found it "...very strange, like having two different mandates." Reagan's instructions had been, "Go over there and get this thing settled." Haig's had been, "Go over there"and, as Boykin tells it, more or less go through some motions. Habib was Reagan's representative, but reported to Reagan through Haig, who had "in fact blessed this [invasion] without telling anybody.... [T]hat put [Habib] in a very strange situation."

Reagan's instructions had been based on Reagan's and his immediate circle of advisors' view of the world, which was primitive and simplistic. As Boykin tells the story (pp. 57-58), "Habib always knew what Reagan wanted: for him to keep people from killing one another and to get them talking. That wasn't terribly sophisticated guidance, but it was clear. It suited Habib fine.... Reagan had complete confidence in Phil Habib because he liked him and because Habib came highly recommended and seemed to know what he was doing.... The disadvantage... was that [Reagan] had little understanding of the problems Habib was trying to solve.... He thought Syria's missiles in Lebanon were aimed at the heart of Israel, that the troubles of Lebanon were stirred up by the Soviets, and that the PLO was an instrument of the Soviets.... Habib found Reagan... a man 'who couldn't remember detail from one minute to the next'." As Haig described Reagan (p. 59): "He wasn't a mean man. He was just stupid."

Haig's view of what should happen was very different (see pp. 84-5). Haig thought that a good outcome would see the Israel Defense Force--the IDF--smash the PLO's military capability, send its political leadership running for whatever safety they could find, and in the process destroy whatever of Hafez Assad's Syrian military got in the way. This would, he thought, gut Soviet influence in the Middle East. If it were demonstrated that the U.S. client (Israel) could easily whip the Soviet client (Syria), then more countries would want to be U.S. clients and the U.S. would have won a victory. It was almost as if Haig saw the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. as the fans of rival sports teams, each taking pride and joy in its team's victory.

But it was far from clear that a full-scale military clash between Israel and Syria accompanied by Syria's decisive defeat and withdrawal would "gut Soviet influence" in the Middle East. Leonid Brezhnev had warned Reagan that the Soviet Union would intervene if Israel was not restrained. Soviet airborne troops were already on alert. A Brezhnev anxious to demonstrate the Soviet Union's commitment to its allies might have been willing to base a Soviet Motorized Rifle Army in Syria. A Hafez Assad terrified of what Israel might do might well be willing to accept such a basing--even if it did mean that his independence from Soviet control thereafter would have been... limited. It seems to me (and seemed to almost everyone at the time save Alexander Haig) that a major clash between Israel and Syria would increase the Soviet Union's influence in the Middle East, not decrease it.

Haig thus comes off very badly: not a team player, not able to keep the rest of the administration informed of what was going on beforehand, not willing to tell anyone in the White House why Sharon was so confident during the invasion, hoping that Reagan's special envoy would fail in his mission, and having little sense of what the national security of the United States required--which was not a confrontation between Israeli and Soviet tanks on the road from Beirut to Damascus.

But the rest of the U.S. government comes off little better than Haig. At one point Habib finds that the PLO agreement to terms he thought he had achieved had slipped away because the PLO was no longer frightened of the IDF. Why not? Because (pp. 95-96) "U.S. Vice President George [H.W.] Bush and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, attending the funeral of Saudi King Khalid, had told the Saudis that the U.S. would pressure Israel not to enter Beirut. That news had the effect of telling the PLO that they were not about to be destroyed. So why should they budge?" George H.W. Bush and Caspar Weinberger gain some points with the Saudi regime. In the process they make Philip Habib's task of defusing the Lebanon crisis harder, and thus put an obstacle in the path of achieving America's national security goals.

However, the second-worst impression is left by then-Israeli Defense Minister and now Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Sharon successively betrays everyone he deals with. He betrays the Israeli cabinet at the start of the 1982 war by concealing from them the magnitude of the operation he has planned. He betrays Phlip Habib by breaking ceasefire commitments made to him in the early days, before the siege of Beirut begins. He betrays his boss Menachem Begin by launching large-scale attacks on Beirut on the eve of the final settlement--as Boykin writes (p. 233-4), the "August 12 blitz 'was the straw that broke the camel's back with Begin's view of Sharon', says Lewis. Begin was furious with Sharon about it and deeply embarrassed.... He forbade Sharon to take any further military actions without his approval.... The Cabinet divested Sharon of his authority to activate the airforce..."

Moreover--and this is the coup de grace--Sharon breaks his commitments not to seek to harm Palestinian civilians left in Lebanon. As Boykin writes (p. 271), "As Sharon tells the story [of the refugee camp massacres], the problem was not that hundreds of people got killed. It was just that too many of the wrong people got killed. The Phalangists just 'went too far', he says, killing too many civilians when they were supposed to be killing only terrorists. To Phil Habib and most of the rest of the world, the problem was that no such operation should have happened at all.... Phil Habib... was devastated.... It wasn't just that everything he had worked for all summer had now gone down the toilet. It was that he was the one who had promised the civilians' safety. 'I had signed this paper which guaranteed that these people in west Beirut would not be harmed. I got specific guarantees on this from Bashir and from the Israelis--from Sharon'. He said he 'had been given assurances... that no action would be taken against the Palestinians remaining in the camps.... On the basis of those assurances we had given our word. We had been deceived.... Sharon was a killer, obsessed by hatred of the Palestinians,' Habib said. 'I had given Arafat an undertaking that his people would not be harmed, but this was toally disregarded by Sharon whose word was worth nothing.'" The refugee camp massacres that Sharon masterminded stained the honor not just of Israel but of the United States as well, for it was President Reagan's personal representative who had guaranteed the safety of Palestinian civilians left behind after the PLO's evacuation of Beirut.

The third-worst impression is left by the soldiers of the IDF. Even after all the agreements for the PLO's evacuation from Beirut had been set, they still rolled their tanks up to positions from which they could shoot at evacuees. They spit on U.S. Marines. They smeared their own feces all over the Beirut Airport before they turned control of it over to the U.S. Marine detachment.

That these three--Alexander Haig, Ariel Sharon, and the soldiers of the IDF--come off worst in Boykin's book is very interesting, for if one were to make up a list of the villains who have made the Middle East into the ratf--- it is today, Alexander Haig, Ariel Sharon, and the soldiers of the IDF would not rank high on a list that would include the Ayatollah Khomeini, Yasir Arafat, Hafez Assad, Bashir Gemayel, and a host of other more sinister characters. The IDF is the best-behaved, best-disciplined, and most scrupulous army in the region: the people most likely to be concerned not to harm civilians through their use of force. Alexander Haig is an intelligent, hard-working patriot, even if he does think that victory consists in winning a battle rather than in convincing someone not to be your enemy. Ariel Sharon is trying to find a path to peace and security for Israel in a context in which his enemies command the killing of Jews--any Jews--as pleasing to God, or remind their followers repeatedly about how the Prophet Mohammed broke his truce with the Quraysh and conquered them even though he had sworn it for ten years, and eight years of that time span still remained.

I think that the fact that these three come off as the villains of the peace is an index of Boykin's success. He set himself the task (p. xvi) of "convey[ing] how the world looked through Philip Habib's eyes and tell[ing] the story from his perspective." And these three--Alexander Haig, Ariel Sharon, and the IDF--were the three principal obstacles to Habib's mission of stopping the fighting and keeping Beirut from becoming an abattoir. Thus they loom large as negative forces keeping the protagonist from achieving his goals: they are the villains of the piece. But if you step backward and examine just how limited Habib's goals were--ceasefire, end of the siege of Beirut, evacuation of the PLO fighters to Tunisia--and are led to think about just what were the forces that kept Habib from thinking he could even try to attain larger goals, you will, I think, be led to a much larger set of villains...